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David and Bathsheba

David and Bathsheba(1951)

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teaser David and Bathsheba (1951)

Going back to the silents, and big box office successes like The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, both remade in the Technicolor saturated fifties, Biblical epics, as they came to be known, were big business. They could provide spectacle and sex, all with a Biblical stamp of approval. The story of David, the boy who slain the giant and became a king, was waiting to take its turn when Darryl F. Zanuck of Twentieth Century Fox got director Henry King together with Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward to make David and Bathsheba and released one of the biggest hits of 1951. Making back over three times its budget, the movie cemented Peck's status as a Hollywood powerhouse but also cemented Peck and Hayward as a bankable team.

The movie takes the story of David from the Book of Samuel in the Old Testament and, like practically every movie ever made that was based on the Bible, meddles with the basic story so much as to render that original story essentially non-existent. David and Bathsheba is about the romance that blooms between Bathsheba (Hayward) and the King of the Israelites (Peck) but renders it a more modern tale of seduction and guilt-induced contrition. As David leads Bathsheba to spiritual redemption at the end, the movie has done the trick all Biblical movies strive to do, basically show the naughty bits then stamp on the Hallelujah chorus, show God's rays light up the sky and say "Amen."

Before David and Bathsheba can have that moment, the movie flashes back to the moment when David became a hero, striking down a giant at the age of thirteen. It's not really necessary to show it but it would be unheard of to go to all the trouble of making a movie about David and not at least spend a few minutes showing him slay Goliath. As such, we get young David (Leo Pessin), with sling in hand, taking down the mighty Goliath (no spoiler warning necessary). It's not much of a battle but it serves the point: David came to prominence through courage and now, in his time of despair, must bring that courage once again to the fore and do what's right.

Henry King was given the directorial assignment for a couple of reasons. One of those reasons was Gregory Peck, the other was Susan Hayward. King had just finished working with Hayward on I'd Climb the Highest Mountain (1951) and just before that had completed work with Gregory Peck on two highly successful movies, The Gunfighter (1950) and Twelve O'Clock High (1949). King had also been a solid and reliable director for decades, from the silent version of Stella Dallas (1925) to the sound version of Way Down East (1935), and from Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938) to The Song of Bernadette (1943), Henry King was a director that actors and producers alike enjoyed working with and whose box office clout was unquestioned. After this one, he would work with both Peck and Hayward again on The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), another box office smash. He would work again with just Hayward alone as well, on Untamed in 1955.

Those two earlier films with Henry King, Twelve O'Clock High and The Gunfighter, had made Gregory Peck into a star in ways that previous successes like The Yearling (1946), Gentleman's Agreement (1947), and Spellbound (1945) had only hinted at. Those films established Gregory Peck as a serious actor and a Hollywood celebrity. But it was his work with Henry King that turned him into a mega-Hollywood star. He was box office gold after Twelve O'Clock High and didn't look back for years.

Susan Hayward came to prominence in the mid to late forties with films like Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947) and My Foolish Heart (1949). Working with Henry King made her a bankable star and after four previous nominations for Best Actress, finally won on her fifth for her raw portrayal of Barbara Graham in the true crime story, I Want to Live! in 1958.

Hayward and Peck proved a good team but only worked together once more, on the previously mentioned King directed effort, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Each would eventually go on to win Oscars and each would carve their own careers rooted almost entirely in modern day characters. They're not two actors one thinks of when one thinks of Biblical epics, but for one movie in 1951, Darryl Zanuck put them together with Henry King and proved that just because something may not be immediately apparent, doesn't mean it won't work. It worked, and their David and Bathsheba is still one of the most successful, and one of the better, Biblical epics ever made.

By Greg Ferrara

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